Sudden Losses of Complexity
- The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter
Cambridge, 250 pp, £27.50, June 1988, ISBN 0 521 34092 6
The main text of this book takes up only 215 pages. It tends to be repetitive and includes a number of not very well designed diagrams and maps. To that is added a list of about 630 references and an index which does not include all the references. Furthermore the references are so constructed that the reader is left unsure about whether the author has really consulted his source or why. For example, Paul Valéry died in 1945 at the age of 74. He had been elected a member of the Académie Française in 1925 and is primarily renowned as a poet. But Tainter brands him as the ‘noted French social philosopher’, with the suggestion that he was still alive in 1962. From time to time he asks his readers to consider the implications of his story for the world that we now live in, but he would certainly argue that his story is an archaeological story. And that, too, raises problems.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 11 No. 5 · 2 March 1989
It is an honour to have my book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, reviewed by so eminent an anthropologist as Edmund Leach (LRB, 10 November 1988), and I am sorry to hear of his recent death. His review, however, contains many misunderstandings and deficiencies which I feel obliged to address. For readers of this reply, the book sets out to explain why societies collapse – that is, drop suddenly to a lower level of complexity (as happened, for example, to the Western Roman Empire, the Maya, and many other societies). The thesis is that societies become vulnerable to collapse when, as costly social features are added, the investment in social complexity reaches the point of diminishing returns.
I will not deal with those passages in which Leach impugns my character. Since Leach acknowledges that he had never heard of me, readers may draw their own conclusions about his competence in this regard. Readers may also, if they wish, join me in speculating why Leach found it necessary to write an ad hominem review. Perhaps the answer can be found in Leach’s own words: when scientists disagree philosophically, they often argue by ‘[throwing] doubt on the credentials of the investigator’ (‘Concluding Address’, in The Explanation of Culture Change).
I will deal first with the misrepresentations and fabrications in Leach’s review. 1. Even the most hurried reader will discern that Leach is completely wrong when he asserts that I am ‘only concerned with the remote past’. The book deals with regularities in social evolution, past, present and possibly future. 2. I never claimed, as Leach states, ‘that the various rules of history claimed by [my] predecessors, if suitably modified, will fit all possible cases.’ To the contrary, while I respect the work of my predecessors in this area, it was the deficiencies in existing theories that prompted me to undertake the study. 3. I most certainly do not follow ‘the Piggott/Wheeler line’ regarding the putative Aryan invasion of Harappa. In fact, my remarks on that thesis are quite critical. 4. Leach claims that the five references to my own work ‘all relate to American archaeology in New Mexico and Arizona’ (thus implying that I am unqualified to write about other places). In fact, only one of the five is about the American South-West. 5. Leach tells his readers that I ‘evidently [believe] that the data from [South-Western] sites … can best be interpreted by reference to sites in … Asia and the Mediterranean.’ Not only do I not believe that, I nowhere asserted any such thing. 6. The statement that ‘Tainter would have us believe that prehistorians are concerned with the dead, and social and cultural anthropologists with the living’ is a complete fabrication. I have never written anything of the sort. 7. I did not, as Leach claims, represent the Hittites, Minoans and Mycenaeans ‘as civilisations of the same kind’. 8. Finally, I nowhere stated that I am ‘trying to do the same thing as Arnold Toynbee … or Oswald Spengler’. Leach has employed a peevish and undisciplined imagination in place of a careful reading of the book.
Leach claims that what I wrote about Chou China ‘is 95 per cent fictional’, that in describing the collapse of the Egyptian Old Kingdom I was ‘letting my imagination run away’, and that there is ‘no evidence for Mesopotamian population decline between 600 and 900 AD. Here Leach lets his standards of scholarship sink even lower. Each of my descriptions of collapsing societies is taken from standard, competent authorities, whose works I have painstakingly cited. Leach could easily have checked any of these sources, but preferred facile disparagement to honest debate. In regard to the Western Chou, I wrote 104 words about the collapse of this state. I wish Leach had told us which five words he considers accurate.
Leach complains that I treated the Aztecs, the Inca, Byzantium, Spain, the Netherlands and Easter Island briefly, and ignored altogether ‘the later history of China, Korea, Japan … South-East Asia, Indonesia, Iran, the Mongolian Empires, Turkey, the Macedonians, Classical Greece’. He is partly right: I didn’t discuss any of these to any significant degree. Why? Because most of these societies never collapsed, and collapse is the subject of the book. This is a fatally revealing point: Leach did not understand the topic of the book he criticises so vehemently.
On the basis of one visit – during which he apparently learned little – Leach dismisses ‘Chacoan Canyon’ [sic] as ‘not a good site on which to base a law of historical decay’. Aside from the fact that I advanced no such ‘law’ (nor any notion of ‘historical decay’), Leach would do better to restrict his pronouncements to Burmese ethnography and French poets. Chaco Canyon itself is but a small part of what archaeologists call Chacoan Society, which is represented today by a network of ruins and interconnecting roads spanning more than 85,000 square kilometers. Chacoan Society developed over several centuries to a level of complexity without parallel in the prehistoric northern South-West. Then, within a few decades, it collapsed. This is precisely the sort of occurrence that students of collapse want to explain, and Chaco is one of our best-known archaeological cases.
Corrales, New Mexico